One of the most formative people in my creative life was Roy East, or Uncle Roy as he was known to me twenty-two years ago my sixth form art teacher. I’m not sure whether Roy would still be with us today or not, though I certainly hope he is. He was touching retirement age when he taught me, and one of my biggest regrets in life has always been losing touch with him when I left the school. One particular thing sticks in my mind from my time under his tuition. Often our art classes would end, but myself and one or two others would stay behind after school, or during lunch breaks and just carry on with whatever we had been doing. Roy always gave the impression that he hated teaching kids to draw and paint, but put a pencil or brush in his own hand and he was as happy as a man could be. Sometimes during these out of hours sessions he would sit down before a still life set-up we might have been working on and starting with a blank canvas draw on his own.
I used to love watching him. Whenever I did so, he would always begin by warning me to pay no attention to how he worked; “don’t copy me, I didn’t pay attention when I was at school”. He would then begin by studying whatever was in front of him for ages, and then suddenly, swiftly, he would make a single mark, with a flourish in exactly the right place. There would be another lengthy pause for concentration, before another mark would be added, away from the first mark. This would continue for a while, as Roy would plot out key points in the drawing/painting, each carefully chosen for its importance. In my mind I would try and make the same connections that Roy was making in his head between these marks. I learnt most of what I now value greatly about the use of negative space in art from Roy East, and much of this came from trying to follow the processes he worked with. Gradually the spaces would be filled, and the speed at which he worked would continually quicken, until, given that Roy was infatuated with the work of Alberto Giacometti, he would be grinding whatever medium he was using into the page at a rapid pace. Strangely, I never much liked the latter stages of this process. Stylistically my preferences in this kind of art were some way away from Roy’s, but the process of getting there, the movement from that first confident mark, through a period of intense study and small structural gestures into the meat piled onto the bones always enthralled me. These days I rarely sit down and draw something in front of me. I just don’t seem to have the time. If and when I do though, I know that my approach will remain very similar.
All of this sprang into my mind early today after I listened for the first time to a CDr sent to me by the Chicago based double bassist Jason Roebke, a release that I think has been self published, and is available to buy here. The disc, named In the Interval is a solo recording made up of two pieces, one lasting twenty-two minutes, the second just six. What is the connection to Roy East? Well Roebke’s first track opens with a single resounding low note pluck from his bass, which is then followed by fifty seconds of silence before another single, higher note, and a few scratches and scrabbles appears. There is then another long pause, during which we might here the sounds of the room, the creak of the bass as Roebke leans against it, not much more until the next sounds. This continues, with the gaps between each note, or little cluster of notes and cracks and scrapes getting shorter and shorter until the music is close to a more normal pace. As the track approaches its closing minutes its a busy, scurrying, brittle collection of pushing and pulling, thoroughly expressionistic playing with just a tip of the hat towards jazzier climes. The joy for me then, obviously is in the way the music progresses from its skeletal, confident but sparse openings through to the bold, almost Derek Baileyesque abstractions that characterise the piece in full flow. The sounds Roebke uses remain at the dryer, scratchier end of things, there are plenty of notes but they manage to avoid melody, and the strings sound loose so they hammer against the body when plucked hard. There is a fair amount of scraping and rubbing at the body rather than the strings as well, so keeping the music slightly away from traditional bass solo territory. Perhaps like Roy East’s paintings and drawings, I would enjoy this CD a lot less if it contained only the fully formed music that closes the first piece here, and as it turns out is all that the second track consists of. As much as I do like the more busy, flared style of playing (complete with grunts and sighs from Roebke as he throws himself into the music) it is the process of getting there, the gradual building of the music from nothing, the first marker thrown down against the blank canvas and where it all leads from there that I enjoy a great deal here. Notably Roebke ends the first track with a sudden single note, exactly the same note as the piece began on, closing the piece with a nice symmetrical touch.
The second track, as I mentioned is full on from the start, a flying passionate six minutes of free improv that is close in style to the last minutes of track one, but perhaps a little more boisterous again. I can’t help but think, in my somewhat selfish way, that maybe the first track here would be better stood alone, perhaps as a 3″ release, as the second piece, despite its many merits does not have the same degree of compositional depth to it that the first has, and if this CD had ended on that final confident note it may have made the statement even stronger, but a small quibble with a very fine piece of music. A really nice David Carson-esque sleeve design needs a mention as well. Not enough use of inventive typography on improv CD sleeves if you ask me.
It just occurred to me that I’ve been listening to a lot of double bass of late, not sure why that happened. Just before I went away I caught the latest concert at Dom Lash’s home conservatory, a pair of duo pieces written by Antoine Beuger, which he performed with his guitarist housemate David Stent. I won’t write about these tonight, and will probably do so Thursday morning, but just wanted to let you know I hadn’t forgotten the event, which was really quite wonderful in its own little way and will get to it soon.